The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jasmine A. Stirling
Jasmine A. Stirling is an author who lives on a cheerful street in San Francisco with her husband, two daughters, a ridiculously adorable dog, and precarious stacks of library books. When she’s not writing, Jasmine can be found singing songs from old musicals, hiking in the fog, and fiddling with her camera. She first fell in love with Jane Austen as a student at Oxford, where she read my favorite of Jane’s six masterful novels, Persuasion.
Jasmine’s debut picture book, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, released March 30th.
Hello and thank you for inviting me here!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I have been writing since I was a preschooler, when I would frequently dictate poetry to my mother. I taught myself to read around that time and became an avid reader of all kinds of books (many that were probably far beyond my ability to fully comprehend) in elementary school. For a time my mother worked at a nursing home, and I often went out on the leafy grounds and lay on the grass writing and illustrating my own books of poems and stories while she worked. Later she worked at (and managed) our small-town library, where I read nearly every book for children in the collection (and many for adults).
I started writing for children in 2016, when my first daughter was a toddler, although I had been doing the research for this book starting in 2013, before she was born.
How lucky to grow up in a library. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
There was lore in my family when I was growing up that we were related to the author of western adventure stories, Zane Gray. My mother was able to verify this information earlier this year with detailed genealogical research. I grew up in Arizona, and my family are almost all artists and writers who love the dessert. They don’t embrace the cowboy way of life and tend to read authors who have a more literary bent, but I think they were charmed that their distant relative enshrined the western frontier and landscape in his work. It’s a dubious literary heritage, but one that we embrace!
That's fascinating. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
My first favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web, which I read around age six. My mother didn’t quite believe that I had read the whole book as quickly as I had, so she asked me to summarize it for her over dinner. She was surprised to receive a detailed plot summary, and I was delighted to recount the story. I read Charlotte’s Web over and over that year. Later, after I moved to San Francisco as a college student, I became a vegetarian. And in 2015 I gave birth to my first daughter and named her Charlotte.
Where did the idea for A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice come from?
I first had the idea of writing picture book biographies in 2013, when I came across the lovely book by Margaret Cardillo, Just Being Audrey, about Audrey Hepburn.
I wanted my focus to be on writers and artists who tend to be misunderstood, and my goal was to have fun but also to champion a fresh perspective on the people I tackled in my books. I think it’s important that, in addition to emphasizing historical figures in STEM and in politics, we don’t leave behind the world of art and artists in our books for children. The arts, I believe, can be an antidote to much of what plagues both individuals and our culture as a whole. I wanted to celebrate writers and artists, and to, in some small way, invite young people into their worlds.
I began to research a shortlist of people to write about, and quickly settled on Jane Austen, an author I adore and who I believe is often misunderstood. Then, in 2015, I read the picture book Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess and immediately fell in love with his treatment of the life of e.e. cummings. I knew the moment I read that book that I wanted to write something that so beautifully distilled a complex person and topic into its essence for an audience of children (and their parents).
I love that the picture book biography uses images, typography, and an ultra-short format to convey really big ideas and figures in history. I wish books for adults would open up to incorporating these elements.
You set yourself quite a goal. How many drafts, or revisions, did A Most Clever Girl take? How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
A Most Clever Girl was the first thing I wrote for children, and the first book I attempted to write for publication. I researched Jane Austen for two years before I began to write, from 2014-2016. I began writing the manuscript in September of 2016 and sold it to my editor at Bloomsbury in August of 2017.
In the intervening ten months, I re-wrote and expanded the manuscript at least 40 times. I had dozens of readers of all ages, worked on it with my critique group, had it critiqued at conferences by peers as well as agents, and worked with three different freelance editors on the manuscript. After it was acquired by Bloomsbury, my editor Allison Moore and I also went through several rounds of edits. Then, of course, it was extensively fact-checked. Although the manuscript is fairly short, there were 300 queries on the first fact-checking round from the research team at Bloomsbury.
I always tell authors that when they think they are done with their first manuscript, they are probably about 40% done. And that last 60% is in some ways much more difficult than the first 40%, because it involves tearing down things that you did and pushing yourself really hard to find new, more effective ways to tell your story.
I hope you kept your research organized, so that first round of fact-checking wasn't too bad. When you first saw the illustrations for A Most Clever Girl, did anything surprise you? What is your favorite spread in the book?
I was overjoyed when I saw the first sketches come back. My editor at Bloomsbury worked really hard to get Vesper on the project. Vesper had just been shortlisted for the National Book Award when Allison got my manuscript in front of her agent. We knew that Vesper had numerous projects from which to select for her next picture book collaboration. Allison even went to an in-person event to meet Vesper while her agent had the manuscript, to extend a friendly handshake and nudge her to consider the book. In the end, Vesper loved the book and is a huge Jane Austen fan, so we were fortunate on all counts.
Text © Jasmine A. Stirling, 2021. Image © Vesper Stamper, 2021.
It would be extremely difficult for me to select my favorite spread, but a few of my favorites are the home theatricals spread, the spread where Jane is sitting at a dinner party smiling slyly while observing Mrs. Powlett, James, and the comtesse, and the Bath spread, which is a real show-stopper.
Text © Jasmine A. Stirling, 2021. Image © Vesper Stamper, 2021.
I also love the spread with the Prince Regent and Jane holding her book at the bookstore on the opposite page. I provided the reference image for that spread, which illustrated how bookstores were much different in Regency England (patrons were not typically permitted to handle the books unless they were fetched by a bookseller, as they were quite precious and expensive, so bookstores looked a bit more like fancy libraries than shops). I love Jane’s expression throughout the book, and in particular on this page. You get the sense that she is the most clever woman in the room—full of brains and wit and life—but she still retains some of that famous English reserve. I think Vesper has done extraordinarily well by Jane in these pages.
I think Vesper Stamper did an amazing job. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from A Most Clever Girl?
With A Most Clever Girl, I set out to write a book that would challenge our notion of Austen as a prim, reserved spinster who lived a narrow life and demurely hid her writing when people walked into the room. That idea of Austen was promoted by her immediate family and especially her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, who was primarily concerned with upholding the family's genteel reputation.
The real Jane Austen was a girl who loved to tell bawdy jokes and roll down the hill near the house with her brothers, who wrote shocking stories as an adolescent heavy with violence and vice, and who later sassily defied the Prince Regent's librarian when he asked her to write a real romance without any funny parts. The real Austen is alive in three dimensions, and she's fascinating. Above all else, Jane Austen is a humorist. I thought that kids would connect with the real Jane Austen much better than the one that still haunts the popular imagination, and I hoped my picture book would help bridge that gap.
I also wanted readers to see, and feel, how arduous the process of developing one’s voice is as an artist or writer is. I don’t think Austen’s experience is unique to her story. Developing great literature and art takes time—often decades—and persistence, and trial and error. It requires, for many, an environment and circumstances that deeply nurture one’s creativity. If you want to be a writer or an artist, understanding what structure, discipline, and context you require in order to create is as important as learning the craft of one’s art.
I love learning what our heroines (and heroes) were really like. Especially when they bucked expectations and traditions. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
I am deeply inspired by the talent in the kidlit world. We are living in an extraordinary era in which literature for young people is of a caliber, breadth, and depth that I could not have dreamed of as a child.
I am also infinitely astounded by my experience of motherhood and the enormous joy and happiness I have found in raising my own children. I feel blessed to be a parent.
My neighborhood of Cole Valley in San Francisco is another source of inspiration for me; I plan to set my next book here. I first encountered this area as a college student when I lived a few blocks away on Haight Street. Cole Valley was almost an enchanted place for me then, and I dreamed of one day living here. Now that I do, is an ongoing source of love, inspiration, and happiness for me. My life as a writer is deeply tied to the place in which I live, which is in part why I related so well to Jane Austen’s story of finding her voice after finding the right physical place in which to settle.
Can you tell is a bit about your next book, We Demand An Equal Voice: Carrie Chapman Catt And Votes For Women, which releases in February 2022?
It’s a 450-page YA history of the US women’s suffrage movement. I wrote this book in 2018, while my second daughter was a brand-new newborn. I wrote it under deadline and it was an extremely stressful experience, but one for which I am grateful. It showed me that I could produce creatively at a much faster rate that I had imagined, even with an extremely limited amount of time each day. I wrote this book mostly while my baby napped, mid-morning and mid-afternoon. In the late afternoon, she and I would hike while I babywore her, and then my older daughter would come home from school and we all had dinner together with my husband. After they went to bed, I would write for a couple more hours.
We Demand an Equal Voice is a rollicking narrative nonfiction adventure story that takes us into the heart of one of the most exciting, fascinating, and empowering chapters in American history—the 72-year struggle to win the vote for women. The story is chock full of drama, violence, corruption, and greed, but it is also full of surprises, solidarity, innovation, and style. It’s inspiring and surprisingly fun. Women’s suffrage has been given virtually no attention in the history books. I hope everyone reads this book because every American should know this story.
This sounds interesting and very relevant. Assuming you have a critique group or partners, what have you learned from your critique buddies over the years? Or from your journey so far?
I do not have a current critique group, as I am moving into writing middle grade fiction. But I have learned an enormous amount from the dozens and dozens of readers who have helped me get my manuscripts into shape. I can’t emphasize enough that if you aren’t open to critiques, you probably should not become a writer. All writers need editors and people to help motivate them to fix the things they know they need to fix, and to fix the things they can’t see.
Very true. How have you been staying creative these days? Is there anything that has helped “prime the well” for you?
Apart from writing and participating in writer’s craft groups, a major focus for me is improving my photography skills while my children are still young. I love magical child photography and have been pushing myself to improve, particularly over the past nine months, so that I can get some keepsake-worthy shots before my youngest in particular is out of the toddler years. I take photos, process photos, and/or plan photo shoots every single day of my life.
I also hike nearly daily on the mountains and hills behind my house. I love watching the foliage and sky change with the seasons—short days with plum and cherry blossoms in early spring, late nights with and flowers, plums and berries in summer, hot days with multicolored leaves, persimmons, and apples in fall, and foggy mornings with pine cones and evergreen needles in winter. My kids and I enjoy hunting most days for mushrooms and picking up seed pods, flowers, and berries for projects. We are always astounded at the variety of flora and fauna within a few blocks of our city home.
Sounds like a magical place to live. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with right now. Why?
My favorite animal is the panda bear because it is so darn cute and cuddly.
However, the animal that I am most symbolically connected to is the elephant. I collect elephants with their trunks up, which symbolize good luck. I display them on a bookshelf in my office, where I also keep all of my favorite children’s literature books. I love that elephants are matriarchs, that they are gentle giants, that they form strong social bonds, and that they work as a team. Elephants are dignified, beautiful and majestic. They hug, mourn their dead, are altruistic, can point, and can listen with their feet.
Thank you Jasmine for stopping by to share about yourself and your debut picture book.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice.
To find out more about Jasmine Stirling, or get in touch with her: